Keller Shows His Really Casual Side at Ad Hoc
Posted: Oct 4, 2006 3:53pm ET
A Napa Valley visitor wandering into Ad Hoc, the new restaurant in Yountville, would never know that it's Thomas Keller's latest venture. There is nothing about it to remind you of French Laundry, just up the street, which serves multicourse extravaganzas of endlessly inventive cuisine, or Per Se, his New York restaurant, where he does the same in lavish surroundings with killer views of Central Park.
The simple, home-style food at Ad Hoc could be seen as an American version of Bouchon, his take on the French bistro that enlivens the scene in Yountville and Las Vegas. But Bouchon has an extensive a la carte menu. At Ad Hoc you get what's being served that night and it's a single price: $45.
Keller calls this a "temporary" restaurant. Earlier this year he bought the space, most recently the Wine Garden, though old timers will remember it fondly as The Diner. Keller hated to let it sit empty while he worked out plans for his take on a burger joint, Burgers and Half Bottles, scheduled to open for spring 2007. That's why it's called Ad Hoc (Latin for "this purpose"). Originally slated for June, it finally opened Sept. 16. I sneaked in for dinner Thursday.
The impeccable quality of the ingredients and the simplicity with which they are served remind me of Chez Panisse when it first opened in the 1970s in Berkeley. After all, Alice Waters wanted to make her restaurant feel like going to dinner at a friend's house who really knows how to cook (and has a great vegetable garden out back). As at Panisse, you get a single menu that changes every day, and the food eschews chef-ly flourishes.
Keller says he wants to evoke what dinner was like in his home when he was growing up. Hence the music of the '60s and '70s on the sound system. Thus the retro look of the waitstaff, which wear gray work shirts with the Ad Hoc logo across their backs. The menu and wine list, printed in a typewriter-style font, are clipped into a file folder. The logo emulates a tab label.
|Ad Hoc's unassuming exterior.
You couldn't eat at the French Laundry too often. It is an overwhelming experience. But I could eat here every night. You don't have to dress up for this. You're finished in an hour and a half, tops. It's not cheap, only a tad less than what you would pay for four courses at Bouchon, but there's no compromise on the ingredients or the care with which they are prepared. The food is served family-style. Each course comes to the table on a platter to be shared.
On my visit the opening round is a salad of haricots verts and garden figs, tossed with chopped walnuts and slices of serrano ham and fingerling potatoes in a perfectly balanced Sherry vinaigrette. The haricots are actually full-size Blue Lake beans. There are plenty of them, they are cooked through but still have a bite to them, and no lettuce to distract from the intense flavor.
Rosy slices of barbecued Santa Maria-style tri-tip, the juicy beef redolent of smoke and herbs, arrive on a buttery casserole of pearl barley with wild mushrooms. Glazed carrots, served on the side, deliver the sort of sweet and earthy flavor you don't often encounter.
The meal for two finishes with a dessert of feather-light lemon poundcake with barely poached blackberries and softly whipped cream, but not before we get a whole little wheel of Blythedale Farm Camembert, halved and served with Comice pears poached in red wine with no sugar so they could go better with wine.
The eclectic one-page wine list comprises only 50 options, ranging from $28 to $88. It's a rudimentary list in more ways than one. It omits any reference to where the wine comes from, so Fogdog Pinot Noir 2004 does not indicate that it's from Sonoma Coast. Betts & Scholl Grenache 2003 (from Australia) beams cheekily from between Ciacci Piccolomini Rosso di Montalcino 2004 (from Italy) and Château Potensac 2001 (from France) with no class distinctions to be seen.
They pour the wine into the same heavy-bottomed, bulbous tumblers that hold the water. I get the point: It's home-style. But still, proper wine service is proper wine service. Even at the basic level, the list should tell us where a wine is from. And yes, I know Riedel is making a fortune on its O line of tumbler wineglasses, but Ad Hoc is using small water glasses with a bulge. Not the same thing.
Fortunately, our server knew his wines well enough to tell us that Fogdog is made by Craig Williams, the winemaker at Phelps, and that the vineyard was originally planted to Syrah but it didn't work so they replanted it to Pinot Noir. You don't get that at Mom's Café.
A footnote: I had just come from tasting a couple dozen Australian Shiraz in my office and brought my favorite to drink with dinner. (Corkage is $20, but the waiter only charged $10 because the wine was already open.) When I offered him a glass of the wine, my wife let it slip that "Wine Spectator
gave it a 94," which made me worry that it might tip them off that I was a critic. He went away to taste the wine and came back to say he liked it. "I don't usually agree with Wine Spectator
," he added. How so? we wondered, and he launched into a story critical of James Laube's taste in Cabernet. At least I knew we were still anonymous.Ad Hoc
6476 Washington St., Yountville, Calif., 94559Telephone
Dinner, Thursday to MondayCost
Four-course menu, $45Credit cards